By Lindsey Clark | info@mainstreetmag.com

Before the thought of a fire department in Millerton, NY, even came to mind, a bucket brigade and the aid of the townspeople were the two main assets to putting out fires. However, an especially large and devastating fire struck a hotel located on John Street around January of 1891, and the bucket brigade, which extended all the way to the Webutuck Brook, failed to control the flames. The building burned to the ground because of the unsuccessful efforts, which led to the realization that a fire department was necessary to ensure the safety of the people of Millerton.

There was also heavy debate at this time about installing waterworks for the whole village, which was eventually finalized. Following this, the village’s fire department was put into place by the Village Trustees during a meeting on January 4, 1892. And 12 years later in 1904, where the Village Hall is currently located, the E.H. Thompson Hose Company was established next to the Presbyterian church. It was named after Edward Harris Thompson, the President of the Millerton National Bank, who provided the department with funding.

The first chief that was appointed at this time was Mintline Morgan, who served a total of two years in the position.

The company would use a hose cart that was pulled by hand to answer calls (see cart in photo above). When the village made their first hose cart purchase, it only cost $57.13 with everything accounted for. Eventually, though, the department made the leap in 1922 and bought a Brockway motorized vehicle to use instead, and the village had hydrants to supply the water for a call.

In 1962 a new firehouse (their current location) was built because as technology, like the trucks, kept advancing, more space was needed to house the developed gear and equipment.

A fire that lasted three days and three nights

There are many notable occurrences over the course of the department’s history. One that is particularly fascinating is a fire that occurred on September 18, 1965, at Suburban Propane Gas Co. located north of Millerton on Route 22. For three days and three nights the Millerton Fire Department tried to control the fire by continuously putting water on it. They worked in 24-hour shifts, and for this time Route 22 had to be blocked off. It wasn’t until experts from New Jersey came in that the fire was completely shut down. The fire began when a delivery man arrived at Suburban Propane, and while he went inside the building his truck rolled backward, knocking off a pipe from one of the 30,000-gallon tanks. This sparked an explosive fire, and it turned out to be the department’s longest fire to this day.

The Delson’s fire

Another incident that evoked lots of concern was the 1955 B.H. Delson building fire on Main Street, located where the Millerton Antique Center currently stands. At the time, the happening was referred to as “Millerton’s biggest fire in a half a century,” and this statement most likely still holds true to this day as the loss, as a result of the fire, was estimated to be at $400,000.
The three-story building was home to many different businesses including dental offices, a public library, a telephone exchange, law offices, and a department store. The fire was first discovered and brought to the attention of the fire department by two telephone operators, Mrs. Mildred Moss and her 16-year-old daughter, Carol. These women were highly praised for this, and for sticking “to their jobs to handle emergency calls until black, punishing smoke pushed them out,” according to the local newspaper article that reported on
the fire.

More than just fires

The company isn’t limited to fires and emergencies though, and this was clearly proven when a big snowstorm hit the town on February 13, 1969. Bernie Silvernail, the department’s longest serving member, recounts that you could only get as far south as the school on Route 22, and if you wanted to get to Poughkeepsie you had to go around through Lakeville and Kent, CT. Because of this, the fire department had to provide lots of help, like rescuing a school bus full of children that were trapped in the snow. This is a shining example of the diverse assistance that the firehouse has always managed to provide to the town of North East.

The department’s structuring

Originally the department was owned by the Village and the Village sold fire protection to the town of North East. However, this meant that the firehouse had to fight with the Village to be provided with sufficient funds for the equipment and supplies they needed. Because of this, Al Andrews and Lenny Morrison (the current president of the department), pushed for a district in 2004. Morrison said that “the best way to do it was that we all formed together, and the department is now owned by the Town and Village.”

This act allows for the townspeople, through property taxes, to fund the department. While the fire district cannot accept donations because they are a taxable entity, the fire company can, and all you have to do is fill out a form that will have the donation deducted from your taxes. The fire company was formed as a not-for-profit, and they deeply appreciate any contributions that they receive.
Before becoming a district in 2004, the department had to attain funds through fundraisers and donations alone to help purchase new equipment and trucks. The last time the company had to use this method was in 1990 when they raised $56,000 to purchase a new truck. Luckily, they no longer solely rely on fundraisers. They also have a reserve fund that contains the company’s savings, and so when they have money leftover it no longer gets rolled into a general fund. As of right now, the district covers the main operating expenses for the department, which includes vehicles and equipment. They must set an approximate budget each year though.

Firemen and women

The department has between 60-65 volunteers, and though this number fluctuates, it changes very little and remains in that range. They also have a 24-hour contracted ambulance service. To be a basic firefighter, you have to go through 120 hours of training, while to be an EMT, you must undergo 200 hours. Anyone can volunteer as long as they pass their physical, are at least 18 years old, and live either in the district or within 10 miles of the district line.

It is very important that the volunteers live nearby because they are only allowed five minutes to answer a call. Morrison notes that “every time that fire whistle blows, someone has usually lost something that they’ve worked very hard for, whether it be a car, a house, a store – anything.”

Mutual aid

An important aspect of the department and all firehouses is the idea of mutual aid. When a fire company is in need, it’s important for them to know that there are other departments close by that can help in an emergency. Mutual aid is used whenever necessary, and even companies over the border answer the call. Lakeville, Sharon, Amenia, and Copake are just some departments, out of many, that are a part of this system for Millerton’s Fire Department.

A major event where mutual aid was a big help was the 1986 Saperstein’s fire. It began at midnight on a Sunday, and with the help of mutual aid they were able to contain the fire to the Saperstein’s building and prevent it from spreading to neighboring buildings.
Another recent highlight is a period in the early ‘70s when the department had to respond to a dozen barn fires. The past 25 years, however, have been fairly smooth for the company, most likely thanks to the improved training and modern technology which has helped to educate the public as well about fire safety and prevention.

Technological advancements

An example of an advancement in fire fighting methods is compressed air foam. First adopted by the department in 1996, this technique is much more effective than prior systems for putting out fires. Morrison, when discussing the product, compared its consistency to shaving cream, and said that once put on the fire that the fire has an inability to go through it. The foam covers the fire like a blanket, extinguishing it. This method is so innovative, in fact, that for every gallon of the substance, it is as powerful as a gallon of water multiplied by seven.

Another key element is the company’s turnout gear, which costs $4,000 per set. They have evolved greatly from the past when gear used to provide less protection and was shared among members of the company. Now, however, they not only defend better against the elements, but the department only gets ten years out of a set until it has to be replaced with a new set. This is a requirement that ensures the safety of the team.

Updated technology and regulations affect more than just the gear and vehicles; only a few years ago the department had to update a very well known and important tool, the Jaws of Life. Despite their Jaws still being in good condition, due to updated regulations as a result of new vehicles and their updated manufacturing (which rendered the Jaws that they had outdated and unfit), the department needed new Jaws that could “open” a newer vehicle. They were able to replace their Jaws with the help of the department’s reserve fund.
The upcoming expansion that the firehouse has underway is also a result of new technology. The newer trucks are taller, which means that more space is needed to house them. It is easier to add the space rather than to accommodate with different trucks, and it will be a better long-term investment, too.

Why they do what they do

An important idea that Keith Roger, the chief, keeps in mind as motivation is “the gratitude and satisfaction of saving someone, you know, waking up at two in the morning, getting someone out of that car safely, and they get to the hospital in a timely fashion. Or going to their house and you can save their kitchen or even a pet. It’s good to know that you can get up and save the day.”
This idea acts as inspiration for many of the volunteers. The teamwork among the members of the company is also something highlighted as being invaluable. It’s very reassuring for the company knowing that all the departments work very close together, and brotherhood is greatly valued.

Morrison and Roger also mentioned how much you can learn from the older members in the department: “You get talking with some of the older members as they’re telling stories and you can learn because all of a sudden the same fire is right in front of you because you talked about it.”

Despite this, there is still no such thing as a “standard” type of fire or a “routine” call, as each situation depends on a multiplicity of factors. Typical calls for the department as of recently tend to be auto accidents and EMS calls. The number of calls the department receives today is usually around 30 per month, which averages to about a call a day. It is rarely this evenly spread, however. According to Roger, there can be a week without calls, and then multiple calls back to back in the same day. “We’ve been known to get six calls back-to-back.” Fire prevention in schools has made a big impact on the decreased amount of fires that the department has had to respond to and take care of. Silvernail added that smoke detectors and pressure-treated wood have also had a significant effect on a building’s susceptibility to catching on fire.

Celebrating 125 years

Regarding this year’s festivities, they will span over the course of four days, Wednesday the 9th, Thursday the 10th, Friday the 11th, and Saturday the 12th of August. There are multiple events taking place, such as a convention parade that will host about 28 different fire departments. The parade will have judges that critique the different companies in multiple categories, including their appearance, uniform, and cleanliness of their trucks. In addition to this, the same band that marched with the company 25 years ago for the 100th year celebration will also march this year!

The parade marshal will be Bernie Silvernail, who has been active in the department for 67 years, which is the longest time served out of anyone still in the company today.

There are also expected to be some very impressive firefighting antiques being shown in the parade, too. In addition, there will be a fun carnival at Eddie Collins Field in Millerton and fireworks behind the field when the sun goes down. They will have four bands playing each night at the ball field, with the marching band playing for a short time after the parade. It’s a celebration that’s fun for the whole family, and it’s encouraged that if you can, go have fun and support the department!

As Bernie Silvernail put it: “Small towns will always, always have to have a fire department,” so come out and help the Millerton Fire Department celebrate serving their community for 125 years. •

To learn more about the Millerton Fire Department, to volunteer, and/or to donate to them, please call (518) 789-4645.